The Institute for Strategic and Interregional Studies (ISRS), Uzbekistan, shares the republic’s strategies to fight terrorism.

UZBEKISTAN is not allowing Covid-19 to stand in its way to combat the scourge of terrorism and has, in fact, intensified its counter-terrorism efforts under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. 

The world acknowledges the fact that the pandemic’s toll on all spheres of public life and economic activities has created fertile ground for the spread of extremism and terrorism. 

Poverty, unemployment and labour migration contribute to the increase in inequality, which exacerbates conflicts among the world’s diverse social, ethnic and religious groups.  

Historical perspective 

Uzbekistan has a history of fighting terrorism, especially after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The new nation encountered socio-economic difficulties soon after independence, which allowed radical ideas to fester and had to deal with the emergence of hotbeds of instability in the region, and attempts to legitimise and consolidate power through religion. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a resurgence of religious radical groups in Central Asia.  

The subsequent weakening of the ideological positions of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the liberalisation of socio-political processes contributed to the penetration of ideology into Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries through foreign emissaries. This stimulated the spread of a phenomenon atypical for Uzbekistan – religious extremism aimed at undermining interfaith and interethnic harmony. 

Nevertheless, at the early stage of independence, Uzbekistan, home to more than 130 ethnic groups professing 16 religions, chose the unambiguous path of building a democratic state based on the principles of secularism.  

In the face of growing terrorist threats, Uzbekistan has developed its own strategy to prioritise security and stable development. It formed a system of administrative and criminal response to terrorism, including strengthening the regulatory framework, improving the system of law-enforcement agencies, promoting the effective administration of judicial justice and its financing. It cracked down on parties and movements calling for an anti-constitutional change in the state system. 

The country faced acts of international terrorism in 1999 and the peak of terrorist activity was in 2004. Between 28 March-1 April 2004, terrorist acts were carried out in the city of Tashkent, Bukhara and Tashkent regions. On 30 July 2004, terrorist attacks were carried out in Tashkent at the embassies of the United States and Israel, as well as at the General-Prosecutor’s Office. Among the victims were bystanders and law enforcement officers. 

Uzbeks also joined terrorist groups in neighbouring Afghanistan, which later attempted to invade the nation. 

In an immediate response, Uzbekistan sought collective regional security and carried out large-scale work to form a system to ensure stability in society, the state and the region as a whole. In 2000, the Uzbekistan adopted a law to combat terrorism. 

Uzbekistan pursued an active foreign policy and inked bilateral and multilateral treaties and agreements with states interested in the joint fight against terrorism. In 2000, an agreement was signed in Tashkent between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan “On joint actions to combat terrorism, political and religious extremism, and transnational organised crime”. 

Uzbekistan, confronting the “ugly face” of terrorism within its own territories, strongly condemned the terrorist acts committed on 11 September 2001 in the United States. Tashkent was one of the first to accept Washington’s proposal for a joint fight against terrorism and supported its counter-terrorism actions, allowing states and international organisations wishing to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan access to its land, air and waterways.

New approaches 

The transformation of international terrorism into a complex socio-political phenomenon requires constant counter-measures. 

Despite the fact that not a single terrorist act has been carried out in Uzbekistan in the last decade, Uzbeks have joined in hostilities in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and committed terrorist acts in the United States, Sweden and Turkey as immigrants, which necessitated a revision of the approach to the problem of de-radicalisation of the population. 

The emphasis has shifted in favour of identifying and eliminating conditions and causes conducive to the spread of terrorism. These measures are contained in the action strategy for the five priority development areas in 2017-2021.  

President Mirziyoyev outlined the creation of a belt of stability and neighbourliness around Uzbekistan, the protection of human rights and freedoms, the strengthening of religious tolerance and interethnic harmony as priority areas to ensure security. The initiatives are based on the principles of the United Nations’ global counter-terrorism strategy. 

The revision of approaches to preventing and countering extremism and terrorism includes the following.  

First, the adoption of the defence doctrine, the laws on countering extremism, on internal affairs bodies, on the state security service, on the national guard, which made it possible to strengthen the legal basis for prevention in the fight against terrorism. 

Second, respect for human rights and the rule of law are integral in the fight against terrorism in Uzbekistan. The government’s counter-terrorism measures are consistent with both national law and the state’s obligations under international law. 

It is a state policy to create conditions under which combating terrorism and protecting human rights do not conflict with each other.  

The national strategy on human rights, adopted for the first time in 2020, also reflects the government’s policy towards those found guilty of committing terrorist crimes, including issues of their rehabilitation. These measures are based on the principles of humanism, justice, independence of the judiciary, competitiveness of the judicial process, expansion of habeas corpus and strengthening of judicial supervision over the investigation.  

The results of the implementation of the strategy led to more humane decisions in the courts when imposing punishments on those who fell under the influence of radical ideas. Until 2016, it was a norm to impose jail terms from 5 to 15 years in criminal cases related to the participation of terrorist activities, today, the courts are limited to either suspended sentences or imprisonment of up to 5 years. Also, the defendants are released on bail under the guarantee of citizens’ self-government bodies (“mahalla”), the Youth Union and other public organisations. 

The authorities are also taking measures to ensure transparency in the process of investigating criminal cases with an “extremist connotation”. The press services of law enforcement agencies work closely with the media and bloggers.  

Third, systematic work is under way for social rehabilitation, the return to normal life of those who fell under the influence of extremist ideas and ready to repent. 

Measures are taken to decriminalise and de-radicalise those accused of crimes related to extremism and terrorism. So, in June 2017, the so-called “blacklists” were revised to exclude those who renounced extremism. Since 2017, more than 20,000 have been expunged from such lists. 

A special commission investigates the cases of citizens who visited the war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the new order, individuals who did not commit serious crimes and did not participate in hostilities can be exempted from prosecution. 

These measures made it possible to implement the Mehr humanitarian action to repatriate Uzbeks from conflict zones in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Since 2017, more than 500 citizens, mainly women and children, have returned home. All conditions have been created for their integration into society: access to educational, medical and social programmes, including housing and jobs.  

Another important step in the rehabilitation process is the practice of applying acts of pardon. Since 2017, this measure has been applied to more than 4,000 serving sentences for crimes of an extremist nature. Pardons give them a chance to return to society, family and become active participants in the reforms carried out in the country. 

Fourth, measures are being taken to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism. For example, in recent years, youth and gender policies have been strengthened, and initiatives in education, sustainable development, social justice, including poverty reduction and social inclusion, have been implemented to reduce vulnerability to extremism and terrorist recruitment. 

In September 2019, Uzbekistan adopted the law to guarantee equal rights and opportunities for women and men. New mechanisms are also formed aimed at strengthening the social status of women in society and protecting their rights and interests. 

Almost 60% of the population are youth, considered as a “strategic resource of the state” and in 2016 a law on youth policy was adopted. Conditions were created for the self-realisation of the youth, to receive quality education and to protect their rights. The Agency for Youth Affairs provides support to children whose parents have come under the influence of religious extremist movements. In 2017 alone, about 10,000 youths benefited from the programme.  

As a result of the youth policy, the number of registered terrorist crimes among those under the age of 30 has significantly decreased in 2020 compared with 2017. 

Fifth, the mechanisms for training specialised personnel have also improved. All law enforcement agencies involved in the fight against terrorism have specialised academies and institutions. 

At the same time, special attention is paid not only to the training of law enforcement officers, but also theologians and religious scholars. For this purpose, the International Islamic Academy, the international research centres of Imam Bukhari, Imam Termiziy, Imam Matrudi, and the Centre for Islamic Civilisation were established. 

In addition, the scientific schools “fikh”, “kalom”, “hadith”, “akida” and “tasawwuf” are active, training specialists in some sections of Islamic studies. These scientific and educational institutions serve as the basis for the training of highly educated theologians and experts in Islamic studies. 

International cooperation 

International cooperation is at the core of Uzbekistan’s counter-terrorism strategy. The republic is a party to all 13 existing UN conventions and protocols on combating terrorism.  

In 2011, the countries of the region adopted a joint-action plan for the implementation of the UN counter-terrorism strategy. Central Asia was the first region to launch a comprehensive implementation plan. 

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the joint-action plan. In this regard, Mirziyoyev, during his speech at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, announced an international conference in Tashkent in 2021 dedicated to this significant date. 

The conference will assess the results and determine new priorities and areas of interaction, to give a new impetus to regional cooperation in the fight against the threats of extremism and terrorism. 

At the same time, the UN Counter-Terrorism Office and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime will assist to conduct training courses on combating terrorism, violent extremism, organised crime, and the financing of terrorism for law enforcement officials. 

International cooperation is at the core of Uzbekistan’s counter-terrorism strategy. Pic courtesy of Unsplash

Uzbekistan is an active member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which also aims to ensure and maintain peace, security, and stability in the region. It is notable that Tashkent is the headquarters of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) of the SCO. Every year, with the assistance and coordinating role of the executive committee of the SCO RATS, joint anti-terrorist exercises are held on the territory of the parties. 

Similar work is being carried out by the Anti-Terrorist Centre of the Commonwealth of Independent States (ATC CIS). The CIS also adopted a “programme of cooperation” to fight terrorism and extremism for 2020-2022. The commonwealth countries jointly liquidated 22 cells of international terrorist organisations in its first year of implementation. 

In countering terrorism, Uzbekistan pays special attention to partnership with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is supported by two-year programmes for joint cooperation in the politico-military dimension. Areas of cooperation include countering terrorism, ensuring information/cyber security and assistance in combating the financing of terrorism. 

To improve the qualifications of law enforcement officials, the republic has tapped experts from the Eurasian Group on Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism (EAG), Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) and the Egmont Group on the risks of legalisation of proceeds from criminal activity and financing of terrorism. 

The principles of cooperation are based on the following: 

(i) it is possible to counter modern threats only by strengthening the collective mechanisms of international cooperation, by adopting consistent measures that exclude the possibility of applying double standards; 

(ii) priority should be given to combating the causes of threats, not their consequences. It is important for the international community to step up its contribution to the fight against radical and extremist centres that cultivate the ideology of hatred and create a conveyor belt for the formation of future terrorists; 

(iii) the response to the growing threat of terrorism must be all-encompassing and the UN must play the role of a key world coordinator in this direction. 

The president has repeatedly stressed the need to strengthen cooperation in the fight against this phenomenon on a global scale. 

Moving forward 

Taking into account the changes in the forms, objects and goals of terrorism, Uzbekistan is adapting its strategy of combating terrorism to modern challenges and threats, relying on the struggle for the minds of the people, primarily the youth, by increasing legal, cultural, spiritual and religious enlightenment and protection of rights.  

The government subscribes to the principle that it is important to fight the reasons that make citizens susceptible to terrorist ideologies. 

With its counter-terrorism policy, the state is trying to develop in citizens an immunity against a radical understanding of Islam, foster tolerance and the instinct of self-preservation against recruitment. 

Collective mechanisms of international cooperation are being strengthened, and special attention is paid to the exchange of experience in the field of terrorism prevention. 

And despite the rejection of tough forceful measures, Uzbekistan is among the safest countries in the world. In the Global Terrorism Index for November 2020, Uzbekistan ranks 134th among 164 states and under the category of “countries with an insignificant level of terrorist threat”.

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